Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pilgrimage to Tennessee

I'm on my annual pilgrimage to East Tennessee. The chill of fall is in the air, but the grass is still green and soft underfoot. A few leaves have turned to red and orange; a few others have already fallen to the ground. Mostly, though, it's green and lush. These mountains are soft, settled mountains, cloaked in green. Dusty fog rises from them in the evening. No, I'm not quite in the Smoky Mountains here, but they're not far away.

It's a place of beauty and of calm. Because I no longer live here, my days are filled with sweet reunions with friends with whom I grew into adulthood and other friends who have watched me grow into adulthood. There are long breakfasts that turn into lunch, then afternoon coffee, and dinner with yet someone else. This weekend, I celebrated a friend's wedding in the waning light of the day. In this place, there are even a few unexpected reunions; those reunions are every bit as sweet as the planned ones.

The laughter here is plentiful; often, the tears are as well. We have the conversations that can't be held over the phone. We exchange hugs that can't be offered again for many months. These are people with whom I once shared my daily life. I still miss that familiarity. There's a bit of sadness that our lives have moved us apart from each other. Here, there's more of home than anywhere else, at least for me.

I cannot stop giving thanks for this God-breathed place and these God-breathed people. There is a deep, rich holiness here. The whole of this place is the bridge between my different worlds. If all goes as planned, I'll be here next year, around the same time, enjoying the richness once again.

I also know that part of the beauty and richness of this place is because I only get to be here a few days a year. The quick glimpse makes this place seem much closer to perfect than it would if I lived here. It also is a glimpse of the Church at its best.

Soon, I'll return to Arizona, to a place and a congregation I love, too. I wonder if this glimpse could teach me how to better live the day to day. Or better yet, how to better be Church in the day to day.

How can Church be calm instead of chaos?

How can Church slow down time? Not in a return to 1960 kind of way, but in an unhurried, another accounting system kind of way?

How can Church be more of home than anything else?

How can Church be as abundant as this place?

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Agnostic. Religious sampler. Spiritual but not religious. Atheist. Damned. Heretic. Yeah, all those terms have been applied to me within the last ten years, most within the last seven. I was working full time in ministry the first time I was called an atheist. I can't remember why that person called me an atheist, at least the first time. By their definition, though, I'm pretty I would be an atheist.

My love of encountering all religions is a topic for another day. I definitely embrace rather than deny it, though. It works. But, yeah, that's for another day.

 Lately, I've been pondering the converse of faith: doubt. Somehow, most Christians have learned to see doubt as a bad thing, as the thing we fear most of all. Confessing doubt leads to an onslaught of folks wanting to assure and offer answers--anything that means the doubt goes away. 

God help us for being so afraid of doubt.

Several years ago, I was at a retreat where we did an art exercise. Now, people think I'm artistic when they see me draw something quickly. What they don't realize is that they have seen the pinnacle of my artistic ability. Anything where I'm expected to create something visual that could be considered a work of art is a problem; I definitely wasn't excited about the stereotypical flowing dressed, spacey, love everyone, be your ultimate cheerleader, artsy lady who showed up to lead this particular exercise. 

But I played along--drawing, turning, seeing something new, drawing again. It was a constant revision of what I thought I was doing and no clear aim for what would emerge. I still have that drawing stashed into a closet in my home. Every once in a while I pull it out, remembering the transformation of one thing into something else that could probably be something else yet again.

At its best, doubt allows us to see anew, to transform, to think differently, to live differently. Doubt stretches and changes our faith; indeed, doubt is part of our faith. Doubt is part of faith as surely as death is part of life, and hate is part of love, and darkness is part of light. There's no clear division. The space in between matters.

On any given day, I'm not sure God intervenes in our daily lives, or that there's any sort of afterlife, or who Jesus was and is. I could actually write a very long list of doubts. And that's ok.

Because doubt is part of faith, too. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Church Ladies

Confession: I misjudged church ladies.

Last weekend, I was the keynote speaker for our regional women's retreat. I went into it with a great deal of anxiety, not about speaking, but about being among church ladies for such an extended period of time.

I've been around church ladies my whole life; I don't remember when the anxiety began, but along the way it did. Some of the ladies I knew were quite concerned about what was proper. As I grew up, I felt their expectations about nice tablecloths and nice dresses, expectations I wasn't crazy about. I've watched them wash dishes and prepare mountains of food. I've mostly dodged invitations to join because I was never quite sure I wanted to become one of them.

Then, last Wednesday, before this retreat, I went to an all-women's MeetUp group. I thought I was going to be the youngest person there, but psyched myself up and went anyway. I sat down at a table; the two women already sitting there barely greeted me and continued their conversation.

It just so happened their conversation was about young women, about thirty years old, and how the world would surely be screwed up when these girls were in charge. They didn't stop the conversation when I sat down. They kept going, blasting young women who have the audacity to wear heels rather than sensible shoes and who didn't know they would have to call in if they were to miss work. They ranted about these young women had surely been coddled by parents and never taught how the real world works. The conversation went on for a good five minutes before either of them took notice of the fact that I, too, am about thirty years old. They were anything but welcoming when one of them looked at me and said, "What do you do?" Her shock was written on her face when I replied, "I'm the pastor of a church."

Then, I walked into a women's retreat, where yes, I was one of a handful of women under the age of 30. But I was welcome.

They never made me feel like I was an outsider. They listened to what I had to say. They extended the same welcome to the young women who weren't preaching at the event.

Somewhere in that weekend, I realized that I'd never recognized the graciousness of church ladies before. The requests to join sewing groups and make casseroles and wash dishes haven't been invitations to what is clearly women's work, even though I always took it that way. I often heard a malicious implication about what I should be doing.

It turns out, the requests have always been a way of saying, "You're one of us. Welcome." The requests have always carried with them a willingness to teach skills not known or help me figure something out, too. The requests were always an offer of relationship.

Now, I still don't want to make casseroles or join a sewing circle. I do want the relationships. I think, just maybe, these same church ladies would be willing to give the thing I'd rather do a shot, whatever that is. So maybe, just maybe, it's up to us younger women to offer up the option of hiking, or movies, or dinner out, or scrapbooking, or a Pinterest party, or whatever floats our boats to the women of the church who are older than us. The women I met this weekend would take us up on it; after all, they've been inviting for a long time.

And I'm really sorry it took me so long to see the graciousness of their invitations.

Friday, September 6, 2013

If I Weren't a Pastor

I wonder sometimes what I'd look for in a church if my life weren't so closely linked with the church. I was a freshman in college the last time I truly chose a church based only on what I wanted. The criteria I used them no longer apply. Not even a little bit. The occasional evening when I attend worship somewhere so I can just attend worship offers little insight; evening services are limited and that community is never going to be my primary faith community.

Here are a few things, though, that I think I'd be looking for:
  • Easy entry and exit. As in, please make it obvious where I should enter the building. Give me any necessary instructions to participate in the worship service. Be welcoming, but let me choose how much to engage. Make it easy for me to leave when I'm ready.
  • A few folks like me. I don't know what "like me" means exactly and it doesn't have to be limited to age. People with whom I have enough experience and similar language that we can share our faith more deeply. I'd surely learn the love some more folks than just those, but those would help a lot in the short term. 
  • Welcome of me. I have this vague idea that if I became engaged in any community, the first things I would be asked to do are help in the nursery, teach kids' Sunday school or help with the youth group. All of those requests are coming from an age and gender bias. I'd rather do mission or serve in worship, actually. I'm much better at reading scripture aloud than holding a baby. Seriously. Me reading scripture inspires confidence; me holding a baby makes everybody nervous, including the baby. 
  • Calm. I'm not talking about absence of energy. I'm talking about a place that quells anxiety and worry. A place that, overall, eased the stresses of daily life, not added to them. Some place that gets there's a peace that passes understanding and somehow rests in that. 
It's strange, I think, that the first things that come to mind have little to do with theology or worship style. They have a lot to do with church culture. 

And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, that's what matters more in the long run. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Money Things

It won't surprise most of my pastor friends or any of my fundagelical friends for me to say that I'm a tither. Ten percent of my after tax income goes in the offering plate each month. I know folks who challenge a 1% increase each year. I know folks who challenge a reverse tithe, living off 10% and giving away 90%. As long as I've been thinking about budgets, the practice of tithing has been a personal expectation. It's on par with paying rent or utilities; it's just what I do with my money. That's all to say that this isn't bragging or a call to better stewardship. This is about what I've always expected for my life and maybe not even knowing there's another way.

About a year into working full-time and the realities of that budget were setting in, I started to wonder how on earth my friends were buying new cars. I looked at my budget and didn't see any wiggle room for even a modest car payment. Did they make that much more money than me? Was their rent that much cheaper than mine?

Because money isn't a taboo subject with most of my friends, I started asking about salaries and rent and their car payment.

Turns out, it wasn't a salary difference at all. My car payment just went in the offering plate. And some money went into savings each month. And I don't carry a balance on my credit card. All those things meant no new car, but also a lot less stress about finances.

It was also one of the first times that I realized this is a way my faith reorients my life in a real, tangible way. And one of the first times I realized I'm glad that it does.

I'm glad there are things that matter more than a new car or concert tickets.

I'm glad that there's something in my household budget that says, "It's not all about me."

I'm glad that I grasp why stewardship of money matters in the life of faith.

But it's also one of those things that places distance between me and people who are loved friends. That distance is one I don't know how to lessen, much less make disappear completely. Unlike so many other institutions that ask for money, money in the offering plate isn't about me particularly liking something or wanting to support it. This isn't an art museum or a college or an animal rescue. This is about God's demands on my life. That's a lot harder to explain.

I think it might be worth a shot, though.